Hot chocolate is an ancient drink. Interestingly, the beverage precedes the sweet, solid versions of chocolate we snack on today. “Hot chocolate has been made for literally thousands of years, stretching back to the Olmecs, where it was made with ground cocoa beans, water, and perhaps some spices,” says Art Pollard, the owner at the Utah-based chocolate company Amano Artisan Chocolate.
The Olmec civilization thrived near modern-day Tabasco and Veracruz in southern Mexico from around 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. The drink persisted for thousands of years and was still a popular beverage among the Aztecs, who lived in central and southern Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries. It was bitter, rather than sweet, and often served cold. The Aztecs drank it primarily as a ceremonial and medicinal beverage, and saw it as treating toothaches, diarrhea, and fever.
Evidence suggests that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés tried chocolate around the year 1518 in the court of Montezuma II, the emperor of the Aztecs. Though the Spanish soldiers supposedly didn’t like the drink much, Cortés was intrigued by the fact that Montezuma reportedly drank it 50 times a day (sheesh), so decided to bring it back to Spain and see what could be done with it there.
“After the Spanish brought cocoa beans back from their visits to Central and South America, hot chocolate found its way into cafes throughout Europe,” says Pollard. In Spain, the drink transformed more closely into the beverage we drink today: served sweet, frothy, and hot. Chocolate houses became popular gathering places for intellectuals, politicians, and other prominent thinkers in Europe and the United States, which began its love affair with chocolate in the late 17th century.
Chocolate remained a beverage “until roughly the mid-19th century when the first widespread production of ‘modern’ eating chocolates and confectionery applications began to appear,” says Michael Laiskonis, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Today, European drinking chocolate—particularly in France and Spain—is richer and creamier than what is commonly drunk in the United States, says Pollard, who notes that it’s typically served in smaller quantities, too. Drinking chocolate remains part of Mexican and other Central American cuisines, according to Laiskonis. “In some regions, it’s prepared by small artisans—and sometimes in the home—where a special lavado, or unfermented cacao, is used,” he says. “Water, not milk, is often the base, as was typical in ancient Mayan and Aztec recipes.”